I've got to tell you now, if you're looking to read about a band who haven't made a rock opera called 'The death defying unicorn', you're at the wrong address. I was at one of the shows where they played the full 2 hour work, and they all wore capes.
In 2014 Motorpsycho celebrated their 25 years as a band. And what a long strange trip it's been – I can say that, see, cause part of the band's folklore is that singer/bassist Bent Saether only ever cancelled one MP show and that was to go see a Grateful Dead show. And one way to see the band (there are many ways) is as a very much heavier version of psychedelicized Dead.
Apart from Neige, I may be the only Motorpsycho-fan on the board (and I may even be misremembering that). So how can I motivate you to share a couple of moment (you need a couple, these guys are at their best when they play long) with me in appreciating one of the finest, most adventurous bands of my lifetime? Let's just pick some random moments on their journey that I happen to want to hear as I'm writing.
I'm starting with something fairly recent, though it's from 2013 and in Motorpsycho-terms, well, they've issued two new albums, a live record and a 4CD-reissue of 1993-masterpiece Demon Box since. Things move fast. This is called 'The afterglow' and like many rock songs it's about transcendence, it's about gaining life experience, it's about the journey being more important than the destination. It starts in the slipstream of momentous occasion (which remains unspecified):
So the wheel has turned again
and we're left here at the end
of something that was bigger than us all
Could be anything, could be a great rock show! Could be a passing.
Anyway, there's a loss, people are spinning apart with only memories left, there's an empty place at the table. There's a void.
It's never just an end
but it's not easy to transcend
an entire lifetime and its weight
These are some beautiful lyrics.
The music is acoustic, with light electric lead, sung straightforwardly, a ballad. And as you expect, at 2'19” the drums fall in. A fitting kinda marching band like rhythm.
But now, but now! At 2'56” the singing stops, a multi part instrumental section breaks out – drums, bass, mellotron, solo guitar. Like the sun bursting out of the clouds, melodies, groove, rock. It's completely unexpected how it twists and turns. It's full of life, of drama, it sweeps you away.
When they start singing again at 4'43”, it's with renewed force. They're singing in harmonies, they're singing about us, about what we learned, 'be with us if you can' (Townshend-esque, right?), about the future.
Now here's my question, the whole reason I played this. I know my answer and I'm unable to consider anyone feeling different. That part (2'56”-4'43”) and the way it fits into this beautiful song, but that part, as you play it very loud, and you stop whatever else you're doing. Are you really telling me that a tiny part of your life wasn't changed, that you weren't swept up, you didn't feel all that emotion that could never be expressed well up inside your chest, you felt it around your heart, tightening, you felt in the grip of this thing and it made you feel alive? Like yes, my life too can change! You are changed. Are you with me?
I'll get back to this, but first a 3 and a half minute detour. Motorpsycho is a quintessential rock trio – you know as well as I do the shamanic power of the trio in rock music (we are talking ROCK music here). They have had many guests, fellow travellers, studio auxiliaries and so on, but they are three: Bent Saether on bass, vocals and main driving force, Hans Magnus Ryan (Snah for short – if these aren't ROCK names, then I don't know what are) guitar god, also vocals, and during the first 15 years Hakon Gebhardt on drums, also glockenspiel, banjo and backing vocals. In 2004 the magic of the trio was broken, when Geb bowed out. That's it, mortally wounded. Could Led Zep continue without Bonzo, the Who without Moon? They were aching, hurting, ready to pack it all in and disappear into the Nordic tundra. But these guys are tenacious. If just the two of us are left, so be it! They locked themselves into a Dutch studio appropriately called The Void, Bent doubling on drums and they fought through that tunnel, all the while laying down a fiercely combative double album (which in itself isn't exceptional, they have more double albums than single) 'Black hole / Blank canvas' which burned up their grief as energy. A year later they found their new drummer Kenneth Kapstad -a Slayer and Miles Davis in the '70s specialist – who's restored the magic threesome. But even in those dark days they could pull out an irresistible rock nugget like 'The ace', which as far as I'm aware they laid down on the record and promptly forgot about. Lyrically it's rudderless, as were the times, 'one grain of doubt will destroy it', sings Ryan in a doubtful voice. But he's got his 'head held high', they're still moving in on their target.
And such riffs. You like guitars? Electrifying, noisy, locked-in-orbit fucking guitars? You'll like this.
OK, back to my main story, what is it, that transformative force I feel? Maybe you feel it too, maybe not, but what is it? Part of it is the balance between the overwhelming force, the heavy power and the tenderness. It's a balance which has always been there. Even at the start. You may not have noticed from the previous songs but Motorpsycho came out of a specific punk/metal Norwergian squatters movement. Nose rings, piercings, mohawks, dreadlocks, dropping out of society in favour of dank, decaying shitholes, the promise of a new anarchic society. Looking back at footage from the early days, they don't look healthy. They learned to play to Kiss albums (and have repeatedly covered them in tribute – they've covered lots of artists in tribute). So the power, the anger, the alienation in an early metal highlight like 'Feedtime' shouldn't come as a surprise.
Listen to this monster. It's a different world from the previous two songs, but it's got that force, that seething fire, the heavy muscle which is still there. It's music like armour, like a pantzer that steels you, can make you gnaw through anything life throws at you. Still my favorite metal song ever.
But what's surprising is that at the same time they were talking about Nick Drake and playing acoustic folk songs with violin and mandolin. The reverie of 'Blueberry daydream' is roughly contemporaneous to 'Feedtime' (this version at least, the song was first recorded for their very first demo tape in 1990). Can you even picture this as the same band? Picture them in concerts where they switch easily between the two? In the big picture of their records it all sounds fundamentally linked. It all sounds distinctly Motorpsycho. The acoustic guitarsound glows, there's a ringing in the chords, like there are some 12-strings hidden underneath. The harmonies are ghostly, hovering like a spectre over the backing track. Occasionally you can hear the mandolin rise up above the guitars. It sounds like its title.
Let's jump ahead half a decade, to 1998 when the band reached one of their creative peaks with the Beefheart-titled double album Trust Us. Confidence pours from the title and the grooves within. I want to talk you through the first two songs on it. The first track, 'Psychonaut', near as definite statement of their crede, and the term for Motorpsycho-fans henceforth. It's also a great example of the next item on my list of attributes: force, tenderness. This next one I like to call, riding the tiger (after a later song based on an early 2000s riff called 'Tristano' of which they recorded an epic 20 minute version on 2003 Motorpsycho + jazzband Jaga Jazzist EP In The Fishtank – confusing, right?).
It involves zoning in on a drone or a riff and letting it repeat. Then repeat. Then repeat it some more. Meanwhile the intensity builds and builds fraction by fraction. It's a physical feeling, you need to combine it with great volume. It tugs at your gut, you start leaning in, sucked in the vortex. Or, you know, if you're not into it, it's a band playing the same thing for a very long time. Of course the impact is strongest in a live situation. But on Trust Us they got pretty damn close.
'Psychonaut' is a one chord 7 minute drone involving drums, bass and guitars (of course), but also pounding piano, mandolins, harmoniums (2 people playing harmoniums), lots of percussion, saw, clarophone, soprano sax and something called a shenai. It's a dense cloud. At 1'27” the main riff kicks in, at 2'00” the drums. Meanwhile Bent sings verse after verse, getting more and more excited, slowly enveloped in dense echoes. And still it goes on and on – till the free jazz solos burst loose (at about 3'30”). A wild distorted guitar fighting against highpitched atonal horns. At 4'40” everyone fades out except for the guitar and horns and they keep going at it! There's no melody, it's noise, but it's alive. Another minute and the whole damn mess fades back in, the drummer pounding on and on on the beat. Till 'zip' it's gone.
Phew, now you might say that's a cool trick, but how did they do that live? They segued into 'Within you without you' of course. Btw, the attendant tour must've been one of the wildest ever (musically). You can hear it on the live album Roadworks Vol 1: Heavy Metall Iz A Poze, Hardt Rock Iz A Laifschteil. 6 songs, 80 minutes. It contains the greatet single example of riding the tiger in history. I might play it later.
Not all of the album is like that – in 12 songs they run the gamut from hardrock jams to wild guitarpop to fragile 3rd VU-album ballads to Led Zep-style epic ballads (but more raw). Rock, yes, definitely rock, but with the conviction and edge of free jazz. Just to tilt perspective, the second track on the album is conga-fuelled Stones-y (but with more abandonment) rocker 'Ozone' ('Just the way we are / our heads in the ozone / and our minds in Shangri-La'), one of two singles from the album. 4 and a half minutes of guitar groove (the bass only comes in halfway through) and lots of solos. I mean, with everything I wrote earlier, let's not forget, rock is fun. There's a lot of fun here. Just a great riff and rocking out. And anyway, us psychonauts don't hold much with Eric Clapton. To us, Snah is God.
Imagine the psychonauts' surprise then, when after Trust Us and the wild, psychedelic tours following, 18 months later Motorpsycho greeted us with this:
'60s inspired, beautifully arranged (horns, strings) ballads and popsongs (but some pretty out there pop too), hardly a distortion pedal in sight, filled in with new auxiliary member jazz pianist Baard Salgsvold's gorgeous playing. It came damn near to revolution. There's more immediate material on the record Let Them Eat Cake, the first of their pop phase (2000-2003), but this is my favorite and the one I happen to want to play right now. That slide guitar is pure honey. Then again, it was just a focus on another key to their sound which had always been there: melodies, chord sequences, the nuts and bolts of songwriting.
It doesn't mean they couldn't rock out anymore. A little more melodic, more stylised, less improvisatory. Just as good though certainly.
Starts at 26'00"
Hooks to the fore, this careers onwards for 7 blissfull minutes and pulls out every trick in the book along the way; full stops, echoing piano chords, band-falling-down-the -stairs noise, gear shifts, bass extemporizations, a second (!) coda and so on.
Just when it seemed their new found accessability could pay dividends – on the European continent at least – they took another turn into some weird heavy harmony pop / plastic jazz direction, then quickly fragmented (the aforementioned departure of their drummer]. When they came back reborn a couple years later they set out on a more progressive/heavy path, like an unholy mixture of Deep Purple, Sabbath and Yes. And that way lay their rock opera. This phase, I guess, is little more niche, they've found their spot and are exploring nuances within it rather than shedding skins, taking bold leaps. But who knows, knowing Motorpsycho it could happen at any time. Their latest scheduled release will be a live album of new material recorded in a cathedral played on the cathedral's organ with an enormous choir singing in Norwegian. And I trust them enough to know it will turn out alright.
In fact scrape everything that came before. Everything I wrote. It's all about transcendence. They really went for it, they're still reaching for it. They hit it more often than most anyone. I'm ending with a landmark track.
I mentioned this somewhere while I was waffling about riding the tiger and so forth. The single greatest moment of Motopsycho riding the tiger as captured on their first live album Roadworks Vol 1: Heavy Metall Iz A Poze, Hardt Rock Iz A Laifschteil. 30 glorious minutes of spacerock. Make some time for it, you don't want to pause this halfway through. Though I've seen Motorpsycho play countless times it was only in 2013 (on my birthday no less) that I saw them play this live. 15 years after the mastertake. In situations like that, it's almost compulsory to write something belittling: pretty nice for people who are a little older now, a little more sedate but still strong. None of that, it was exactly the same intensity, just as far into space. I was out of this world for half an hour. I don't know where I was, but not here. That's transcendence.
4 posts • Page 1 of 1
- der nister
- Posts: 15564
- Joined: 30 Sep 2008, 18:42
A great write up on a great band capable of greatness, I love almost everything. Even when the vocals almost fall in the lazy Super Furry, Supergrass can't get it up mode, the music is always stellar. Twenty five years on, their ambitious re invention and pushing their envelope has put most bands to shame. They deserve greater success, but maybe because they have focused on the music, they been able to have a career.
It's kinda depressing for a music forum to be proud of not knowing musicians.
- Posts: 1968
- Joined: 13 Mar 2008, 21:33
- Location: back from the grave
Another fan here - I have quite a few of their albums and enjoy every one of them. And Nice write up (as ever) Pieter.
That reminds me, haven't played one for a while. Time to remedy that!
That reminds me, haven't played one for a while. Time to remedy that!
the rat is back - more or less!
- Posts: 14109
- Joined: 14 Aug 2013, 11:37
- Location: deepest Devon
In timeless moments we live forever
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Negative Capability...when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”